Bed bugs have hoteliers itching to eliminate reputational damage.

Hotels have been dealing with unwanted guests for years, from cockroaches to mice. But the latest nuisance, while small in size, is fast becoming the most invasive and difficult guest to evict from the premises.

“At this point in time there is probably nothing in our industry today as important as bed bugs,” says Daniel Mackie, technical services director of Greenleaf Pest Control in Toronto. “It’s purely because these things feed on humans.”

That said, cockroaches can be a much bigger health concern for many, especially from an asthmatic perspective. Proteins in roach feces and saliva trigger allergic reactions or asthma-like symptoms in some people. For those with severe asthma, inhaling allergens from dead cockroach bodies can produce a reaction. Patients with such allergies can develop acute asthma attacks lasting hours. Mackie believes roaches don’t attract as much attention because the nocturnal creatures, usually found in kitchens, are out of sight, out of mind. “They’re not in the bed with us sucking our blood when we’re at our most vulnerable,” Mackie remarks.

Despite all the hype, bed bugs or cimex lectularius as they’re known to professional entomologists, can’t kill humans and don’t carry disease. However, they do inflict painful bites and itching. And, of course, bed bugs can kill a hotel’s reputation creating a substantial loss in revenue. Most of the time an infestation has nothing to do with the cleanliness of the hotel, says Mackie. Instead, bed bugs usually enter a hotel on a guest’s luggage or through personal belongings. From there, they spread.

Over the past couple of years, several hotel operators have had to eradicate bed bugs or take preventative measures against the risk of an infestation. “It is spreading and it is not getting better,” warns Mackie, adding, “a lot of us thought it was getting better last year, but that may have been a little bit premature.”

In the past, the controversial insecticide DDT was used to kill bed bugs, but since DDT has been banned in many countries, bed bugs have gone through a major resurgence, and many synthetic insecticides simply aren’t very effective at eradicating them.

The bed-bug resurgence is changing the way people travel. Tamara Dinelle, marketing programs manager with software company SAS Institute in Toronto, travels for business on average three times a month. A few years ago she saw a mouse crawling on room-service trays abandoned in a hotel corridor. The sight of that unwanted guest has put her guard up and made her wary of pests in hotels during business trips. But her latest obsession is bed bugs.

While she’s yet to come across bed bugs in the course of her business travels, it’s “absolutely a concern,” she says. “At first I thought a lot of it was media hype, but then a friend in the hotel industry told me about the issues they were having with bed bugs. That’s when I realized I was probably exposing myself to bed bugs and decided to educate myself.”

What she learned is that bed bugs aren’t able to discern a high-end luxury hotel from a lower-end budget hotels, so she decided to protect herself wherever she stays. “It might sound crazy, but I check the linens, under the pillows, under the mattress,” she says. “I don’t put my luggage on the floor anymore, I put it on a non-upholstered surface and I hang up my clothes.” She also reads online travel-tip sites prior to travelling.

The subject of bed bugs elicits such a strong emotional response from hoteliers that most would rather not talk about the subject at all. However, in an interview with The New York Times last year, Wes Tyler, GM of the Chancellor Hotel in San Francisco spoke openly about the scourge. Short of putting a bed bug-sniffing beagle at your door, Tyler informs, you’re going to get bed bugs. He says dealing with them “is the cost of doing business these days.” At the Chancellor, a bed-bug detection program has been put in place and incentives have been offered to who hotel staff find the creatures. “Bounties” of $10  per bed bug are paid to employees who locate the unwelcome guests. According to Tyler, the price of having to clean a room, combined with the cost of a lost booking, could easily amount to US$2,500.

The high costs of dealing with this problem, says Mackie, is why education is so important. Housekeeping staff, who change the sheets daily, can be trained to spot the telltale signs of bed bugs. Those signs include black spots and feces on bed linen. Mackie recommends establishing a bed-bug task force, comprised of two or three staffers responsible for following up on reports of bed bugs. It’s a cost-savings initiative, he says, since “it happens constantly that someone thinks they’ve got a bug and they don’t.”

Management should also be trained to deal with customers; they need to diffuse the situation surrounding bed bugs and put patron’s minds at ease. So how should staff react? Last year, Mackie stayed at a prestigious hotel in Hawaii with his wife, and, as is his habit, he walked in the room, dropped his suitcase at the front door and did his inspection. “Sure enough I found bed bugs,” he sighs.

Mackie called the front desk and was politely asked a few questions: front desk gave him a swift response — which included bringing in a professional pest control company to take quick action — and he was moved to a new room. Many hotel managers however, hesitate to act quickly or wrongly pounce on the victim. “If they don’t know how to respond, that’s when people want complimentary rooms and replacement of all their belongings,” he says.

It’s important to be proactive and set up risk-management procedures to address the issue before guests come to the front desk with a problem, says Greg Gatti, director of the property practice with Aon Risk Solutions, a risk- management group in New York.

While bed bugs are not deadly, they can be costly. People who unknowingly bring them home or into the workplace can end up paying $2,000 to $5,000 in cleaning bills. Treatment is typically multi-faceted, from application of chemicals and high-heat steam to the encasing mattresses. Typically, the process needs to be repeated a few weeks later.

Underlining just how serious the bed-bug situation is for hoteliers, in 2011, Aon rolled out bed-bug insurance to protect hotel operators from the bug’s perils in the U.S. The insurance company plans to offer it in Canada during the first quarter of 2012. Insurance covers the cost of cleaning a room, clothing and personal belongings as well as the cost of moving the guest to another room or hotel. Aon will also offer insurance for business travellers, including an option allowing companies to buy it as a benefit for employees who travel.

While the insurance offers coverage for many aspects, it doesn’t cover medical expenses. “Bed bugs don’t cause any diseases, they leave a bite and they itch, not like mites or ticks or mosquitoes where you can contract lyme disease or malaria,” instructs Gatti. The insurance is really meant to help with the hotel’s brand reputation.

While early detection of bed bugs is fundamental to stopping an infestation, it’s the preventative measures that are costly. “There’s nothing as quick and as accurate as a dog to find bed bugs,” Mackie adds. He says, “for a highly trained human inspector, to find one bed bug it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. They have a 30- to 40-per cent chance of finding a bed bug.” On the other hand, man’s best friend has a 90 per cent or higher accuracy rate.

It costs approximately $12 to $15 per room for a canine search, but cleaning up after an infestation can cost thousands of dollars. If bed bugs make headlines, it’s almost impossible to quantify reputational damage — making bed-bug damage control yet another cost of doing business these days.

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